5 Great Questions to Ask Yourself If You Hit a Career Ceiling

Career ceilings happen; there are only so many seats at the top table. But, if you feel you have hit a career ceiling where you work, it’s important to firstly ask yourself, could I have done any more here? I would caution before you assume and blame others or the organisation. Start with holding the mirror up and go from there, but change starts from within.

As an Executive Coach, I worked with Rachael (not her real name) recently.  She worked diligently hard in her role and went beyond the call of duty to deliver big projects and get stuff done. When she came to me, she needed urgent interview preparation for an upcoming promotion. Unfortunately for her, she had left it too late. She had fallen foul to being busy in her job but not on her career. She said she was frustrated with an old boys’ club in her organisation. She ignored it and assumed her hard work would be rewarded in time. Surely, they couldn’t overlook her outstanding work achievements? Yes, they did. She was, in effect, considered too good in her current role to promote. More truthfully, she was doing such a great job, she hadn’t considered taking time to develop a suitable successor. She had made herself irreplaceable for now; but had also fenced herself into a role with no career development plan. Rachael had also never sought to influence across the organisation, she believed this was not her place. She relied on her work to speak for itself. When I challenged her more, she admitted she feared exposing herself in projects outside of her expertise. She preferred to stay within her own area of expertise, her comfort zone as she later conceded as she reflected more.


Hitting the ceiling happens for different reasons, here are 5 great questions to ask yourself. The answers will help you navigate the next best career move for you to advance your career.

Context – Is it them or is it me? Before you blame the culture, be honest with yourself. Have you worked hard to build a career brand that demonstrates you always wanted this next step up. Are you seen as a High Risk of leaving to the business if you leave? Why? Is this a culture you want to be part of in your future career? What is their track record for internal promotions here? Who gets promoted and why? Have you asked others, how they got their promotion?

Stepping Out – Do you need to step out before you step up? Stepping out is about becoming more visible, influential and known by others outside of your day job. Stepping up is what happens when you have stepped out often enough. Stepping out of your comfort zone is scary, but this is where there is high challenge and high skills development. Stop being busy in your day job and start creating opportunities to influence across and above in your organisation.

Executive Connections – How influential is your network? Stepping out across the business demonstrates your capability. The key leverage for breaking the ceiling is building Executive Connections. These are the influencers. Create ways to be in their company, target them at meetings or informal gatherings. Your job is to get to know them and become interested in their world and they in yours. Find out what their pain points are and what is keeping them up at night. Reflect on how you could be a solution. These influencers must know what you want to do next and why. The interview is often a charade, yes it may scupper chances if you don’t perform on the day, but most important is your relationship with key influencers before internal interviews.

Do you want to stay here anyway – Have you overstayed your welcome? Sometimes not getting promoted can be the great career alarm clock. Is it time to get up and go? Have you realised through this interview process the promotion was not for you anyway? Maybe you may have stayed too long and, if you stay longer, it is likely you will end up plateauing. If you can’t afford to leave because you have too much to lose financially, start making plans to do so. This starts with investing in yourself and your external network to become more employable and marketable outside your employer and your sector.

Peter Principle – Are you up to what the job requires right now? Beware you may be evaluating your performance in your current role rather than what is expected when you get promoted. Seek honest feedback, not just from the interviewers but others who know you and will challenge you. I have given frank feedback to many people in sessions and some have taken offence. “No one has ever been that direct with me before!”, one person said to me. I nodded my head and agreed, but then I asked “What have I to gain from telling you lies? You didn’t hire me to be your friend; you hired me to be your coach to improve your future performance!”

In Rachel’s case, she accepted the feedback and described one of our sessions as a “great awakening” and the day she woke up to the reality of what is required to overcome her career ceiling. The alarm clock went off for her.

If you have hit a career ceiling, do any of the above questions resonate? Be honest with yourself and act. Rachel has undertaken an external development programme and is exposing herself to a new network outside her own organization. We have assigned her a Communications Coach to build her influence and brand internally while she now spends time to mentor her future successor. She is serious about stepping out and stepping up and her CEO knows it, she has told him what she wants and why. She is now working smart and not just working hard! Time is ticking, and she is making herself ready for internal or external moves. She now sees the day she didn’t get promotion as the day the alarm clock went off and woke her up!

“Talent sets the floor, character sets the ceiling” Bill Belichick

If you are interested in finding out how you or one of your team can overcome the career ceiling, you can speak with one of our Coaching team by contacting Harmonics on 01 8942616061 336136 or 021 7319604 or email

John Fitzgerald is the Founder of the Harmonics Group. Harmonics specialises in helping organisations plan for change, manage change and support their people through change.

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